Diana Zahn on why the Channel is losing land

Written by CNN Staff

Nothing surprises her when it comes to discussing economics.

But when Britain and France agreed earlier this year that the Channel should be widened, Downing Street minister Damian Green introduced surprise.

Efforts were underway to prevent the depletion of the area’s sea beds. A group led by the European Commission announced it had secured funding for the project in February. Yet Green told an audience in London on Wednesday that agreement had also been reached on “regulating the right of vessels to enter the channel,” which Britain regards as sovereign territory.

Imagined — and unfulfilled — political ambition

The claim no longer stands. Britain’s Channel Islands are losing around half their land mass over the next 100 years, according to geographer and marine biologist Dr. Bob Watters, and will end up one third submerged by the middle of the century.

Currently, the Channel divides it into “ice lanes” that have broken up over the decades. The Prime Minister’s mention of regulating vessels is interpreted as a recognition that any change to the Channel would undermine the vast network of shipping that crisscrosses it.

There are signs of the continuing risk of flooding. The installation of a new set of sea walls around the port of Calais — due to open in 2019 — is projected to cost £50 million (about $64 million). Watters and some others insist on a much bigger solution that would involve extensive dredging of the channel to widen it further.

Watters says the relocation of the channel by a few miles around Calais, to create an “expressway” through the Channel out to the coast, would be the only way to provide sufficient protection.

Beijing, Paris go back-and-forth over sea width

Dubbed the “Happy Crouch,” for its bulbous shape, Watters argues that Britain’s Channel Islands are an economic, social and environmental asset, so the longer channel should offer them substantial relief. “They’re magnets for trade,” he said. “They’re a naval and air service base. They’re at the heart of European affairs.”

By loosening the barriers that have separated the countries for two centuries, the channel could provide Britain with both political victory and a burgeoning economy. The resolution of the dispute with France could offer great economic advantage to China, where China Ocean Shipping Company is itself expanding its port facilities in Rotterdam and other locations.

Beijing and Paris have been divided over the channel’s narrow depth for decades. The competition between the two has been brewing for more than a century.

Coastguard at the ready?

If the channel is further opened, the Maastricht Convention would remain in force, banning ships carrying more than 35 tons of fuel from entering. On the other hand, there is no such law in existence barring passage of ships carrying even 30 tons of liquid fuel. Because ships entering the channel have more than 20 tons of fuel on board, it would only become possible to calculate an acceptable limit once the passage is safe.

Watters is keenly aware of the legal complexities. He said that the UK Government had made legal concessions in the past, and it could do so again. He has even suggested that its decades-old declaration should be completely ignored.

Nonetheless, the Wallis and Futuna Islands are the only part of French-British Oceanic Realm which will not be submerged by the century’s end. The Channel Islands, however, will have an “overlook” in the Channel. This could give Britain a means of sealing off Bougainville, the island in the Solomon Islands that has long been the cause of dispute with Bougainvilleans.

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